Could there be an instrument that is a fraction of the size of an upright bass, but sounds like a double bass. Is it possible? Is this a dream? I’d say that a bass ukulele is the closest thing I have heard to a double bass that is not a double bass. If your audience could not see you playing the bass ukulele they could easily be fooled into thinking that they were listening to a double bass.
It might be a bit controversial, but I think that a bass uke sounds more like a double bass than an electric stick bass.
U-Bass or Bass Ukulele?
The bass ukulele, uke or to use its Kala brand name the U-Bass has been around in its present form since 2008. There was a model previously to this which was the inspiration to Kala’s u-bass launch in 2008. Kala and other manufactures have since popularized the instrument to what we know of it today.
The bass ukulele is the same size as the baritone ukulele, just under 30 inches in length (76cm), but it is the same tuning as a double bass and bass guitar. Its tuning is E A D G.
Initially you might be put off, thinking that this relatively tiny instrument is more of a toy than a serious contender. Do a bit of digging and you’ll find that the instrument has grown in popularity and is indeed getting noticed.
Portability is an obvious factor with its popularity. Portability gives the no-hassle fun element which people love about ukuleles. You can easily find yourself owning more than one ukulele.
Why Choose the Bass Ukulele?
As mentioned in the post about children playing the double bass, I’ve suggested the uke is an excellent instrument choice for kids to start with. This is especially so if they are interested in a double bass or bass guitar but aren’t quite ‘big’ / tall / old enough to cart around a double bass on their own.
Lots of musicians are using ukes on the road to practice with, but increasingly these tiny basses are used on gigs,the sound from a bass uke is surprisingly punchy. More and more musicians are beginning to understand the bass ukulele’s potential.
Types of Bass Ukulele and Setup
There are two main types, electro-acoustic and solid body models. Check out Kala’s California u-bass if you are tempted with the idea of a solid bass uke.
The electro-acoustic has visible electronics on the side with a hollow body. Without amplification, you will be able to hear the instrument, just not very loud, but just enough for a quiet practice session. It is therefore a necessity to use a bass amp for amplification to get a decent output. Do not use an electric guitar amp, you will will overload the speaker.
If the uke is of a solid body type you would hear the instrument even less, as there is no acoustic chamber to amplify the sound.
Ukulele Bass Strings
Most typically bass ukes are presented with rubber (polyurethane) strings. Rubber strings will feel a bit different at first and some people say they feel a bit slippy, and roll when played. I have heard of people using rosin or billiard talc to help with this, you can experiment yourself if you feel your hands get particularly sweaty.
As with all ukuleles, you’ll find yourself tuning the instrument a lot in the early stages, this can be especially the case with u-bass. This is mostly down to the type of strings on the instrument. This issue should settle down as the instrument is played and the strings ‘bed in.’
The Main Types of U-Bass Strings
There are some options for bass uke strings, different strings give different sounds.
Rubber strings have a lot of flexibility and less tension to them so will be ideal if you are looking for something which is easier to play, less physical. Players who suffer from aches and pains in the wrist might consider this a benefit. You will need to push down and play lightly to get the best sound out of these strings.
You will need to watch out for the intonation if you start to slide up the neck on the uke. Consider using Aquila reds or flat wound for this style of playing if this becomes a problem. The flexibility inherent in rubber strings will mean the pitch can shift a little.
The best set-up that I have heard, which sounded nearest to that of a double bass, was with a beautiful Kala mahogany ukulele using Aquila red strings. These Aquila reds are less stretchy due to the technology, holding their pitch better than the standard flexible out the box panhoehoe strings.
Another option for a ‘double bass sound’ is to go for flat wound steel strings. With steel strings you will find that you are going to need to push down a bit harder, but not as much as you would on a bass guitar.
Round wound strings definitely sound closest to that of a bass guitar. All in all, the choice of strings is very personal and admittedly the polyurathane strings are going to feel quite different if you have not encountered them before.
The debate is endless of course when it comes to strings and so as not to bore you further with the string debate the most important obvious point is to go into a store and try the different types out to see what is most comfortable for your playing style. Just simply note the inherent characteristics between the three types and their different tensions.
Which Ukulele to Buy?
No one can give you the answer as to which ukulele to buy. If you were to asked a 100 ukulele players to answer this question they could easily give you a 100 different answers. Such a decision will largely come down to budget and which size of ukulele you are looking to buy. There are a number of different brand options at different price points.
Finally, to note some features which are useful to look out for when shopping. Some ukes come with adjustable necks which is very useful if you do a lot of travelling. If the neck moves during transit it can be reset. It also generally means you can position the neck to give the action you are looking for.
A lot of u-basses come with bass, middle and treble controls. This gives more control over the sound. Not all electric basses come with this control, so another good feature to note for ukuleles.
Once you get your instrument home if you find that your u-bass has a slight buzz when played, especially when played closer the nut, you might need to adjust the truss. This is not a unique issue attributed to the ukulele, any instrument that has a truss rod can develop a buzz. It is not something that should be present a problem. A good repairer at the music shop can help you with this if needed.
It is not possible to say the bass ukulele will replace a double bass or that it will give exactly the same sound, they are after all different instruments. It does as discussed give a good sound-alike version of the double bass. The bass uke is a fun and increasingly serious contender in the bass arsenal, whether it be for gigging or messing around in practice sessions.